Although horror has become an increasingly dismal video-game genre over the last decade, I've always had a soft spot for a good horror title. Well-done horror games can scare me more than the very best horror film, so I'm always on the lookout for the next quality entry in the genre. After having recently finished Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I got to thinking. What makes horror games tick? What makes the perfect horror game? After mulling it over, I came up with a couple of key elements that I believe are essential to making a solid horror game.
Video games by their nature tend to become predictable the longer you play. You memorize the enemies and their patterns, you learn the combat system by heart, and so on. Predictability isn't necessarily a bad thing for most genres, but horror gets hit by it harder than most. The second a horror game becomes predictable, it loses a large amount of its ability to scare the player. To be properly scared, you have to not have any idea what's coming next or if you're going to live through the next few minutes.
A lot of the best horror games establish this kind of fear through their enemies. Amnesia: The Dark Descent had a fantastic atmosphere, but the game's fear factor is primarily created by the horrific monsters you encounter. At first, you doesn't understand the monsters beyond the fact that they're bad news and you need to get as far away from them as possible. The oppressive darkness and the fact that the sanity meter discourages you from directly looking at them turn them into the stuff of nightmares.
The monsters appear in scripted encounters that occur at regular intervals throughout the game, but there are also more dynamic encounters where you might just be walking around a corner when an enemy starts to pursue you. Even in the scripted encounters, there's a key element of suspense on first-time playthroughs. Opening a door or solving a puzzle might alert a monster, or it might not. Even when an enemy starts to pursue you, you often have no idea where they are, with the only thing alerting you to their presence being the spine-tingling chase music. The fact that you're never truly safe and can't fully predict what will happen next is a big part of what makes Amnesia so scary.
However, keeping a game unpredictable gets more difficult the longer the game goes on for. The longer the game is, the more comfortable the player gets with the gameplay mechanics and the more desensitized they become to the game's particular brand of scares. In Amnesia, you grow to understand the enemies more and you figure out the most efficient ways to hide from them. The sheer terror you felt the first time you ran like a little girl from the hideous thing you just saw rounding the corner melts away into apathy. Instead of being scared of them, you hide in a dark corner and impatiently wait for the monster to get on with its day and leave you alone.
Introducing new gameplay elements and enemy types are about the only solid ways to fight predictability, but not many games have done enough of this to keep them from becoming predictable. Almost all of the horror games I've played settle into a rather predictable groove sooner or later, especially if the game is lengthy. It's one of the reasons why I slightly prefer 5-6 hour long horror games like Outlast instead of 8-10 hour experiences like Amnesia and Silent Hill, even if that means I get less game for my money.
Horror gaming borrowed many of the elements that are used to make horror films scary, e.g. jump scares, creepy sounds in the distance, and so on. The problem is so many developers throw in some distant footsteps and some "cinematic" jump scares and call it a day. You need to work a little harder when making a horror game, since scary noises and jump scares just aren't enough if you don't integrate them into the gameplay and make them into legitimate threats.
The jump scare in Outlast: Whistleblower where you turn around and find a crazed inmate right behind you and have to run for your life through a dark courtyard is far more effective than the numerous non-interactive sequences in the game where something harmless jumps out at you or somebody grabs you and you watch a short cutscene play out. It's jarring to go from scenes where you are in genuine danger to pre-scripted scenes or creepy phenomena that you watch as an observer, knowing full well that you'll be just fine.
On that note, I thought that F.E.A.R. was terrifying when I was younger, but I don't think I'd think the same way about it if I played it today. Seeing Alma dart across a hallway in slow-motion, watching a spectral enemy close a door ahead of you, or being forced to walk down a bloodstained hallway is unsettling the first few times, but it loses all its impact once you realize it's just the developer trying to screw with you. You start to develop a dismissive mindset because many of the scary scenes don't have much interactivity or pose a threat to the player. These scenes can be useful for developing the story and establishing atmosphere, but they fail at being terrifying because the player quickly learns that there's nothing to fear from them.
This ties back into my previous point—unpredictability is the name of the game when it comes to horror titles. Players need to have no idea whether a sound or a creepy sight off in the distance is harmless or if it poses a genuine threat to them. There's several parts in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs where you hear hair-raising sounds like a monster pounding on a door, but you eventually get desensitized to these noises because they rarely amount to anything. A horror game loses so much of its grip over the player if the player can just dismiss all the unsettling sounds they hear and the disturbing things they see because they know the developer is just messing with them.
To give another example, you see a pig man skulking the hallways of the main character's house in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs a couple times at the beginning of the game, but it always disappears into a door or hallway and is never seen again. You quickly figure out that the house is a safe-zone where the creepy noises and pig sightings are just window-dressing to establish atmosphere.
I have a few ideas on how to improve scenes like these. What if instead of the pig never being heard from again, it hid in some part of the house in the direction you last saw it walking in? What if in similar scenes, monsters would hide in random areas and you would have to determine where they are from the sounds they made? You wouldn't need to make every scene like this, but just enough of them so that there's enough uncertainty in the player's mind that they can't dismiss the eerie things they see and hear.
For an example of a game that pulled off something similar to these ideas, we don't have to look any further than the under-appreciated Condemned: Criminal Origins. Insane enemies hide in dark corners and leap out at you with deadly melee weapons in hand, which made exploring new rooms interesting to say the least. Enemies can give away their location through subtle sounds like coughing or knocking over objects, which encourages the player to stay on their toes whenever entering new areas. This gave the game a never-ending supply of quality jump scares and made the atmosphere incredibly tense, which is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Condemned so much.
I didn't get to touch on combat systems, so I'll probably put together a future post exploring what makes up a good horror combat system. But for now, what do you like to see in horror games, and what don't you like? What elements make up your ideal horror game?